jakub | May 10, 2023

AMERICAN THEATRE | Stephanie Ybarra: Change Is Going to Win

Stephanie Ybarra.

The head of a leadership search firm recently told me she refers to them as “the Talented Six”—the cohort of artistic leaders of color who took the helm of some of the nation’s most prestigious, and predominantly white, resident theatres in 2018 and 2019. There was Hana Sharif at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Robert Barry Fleming at Actors Theatre of Louisville, Jacob Padrón at Long Wharf Theatre, Maria Manuela Goyanes at Woolly Mammoth, Nataki Garrett at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and Stephanie Ybarra at Baltimore Center Stage. (Diep Tran wrote about some of this leadership change in 2018, and the high hopes and formidable challenges that came with it.)

The years since have been rocky, and not just because of they brought with them pandemic, protest, and political upheaval. Some of the resistance these leaders have encountered—from donors, boards, critics, and audiences—has had an undeniably racist and/or sexist tenor. All of them have also wrestled with long-standing structural challenges common to the entire field (declining subscriptions, donor attrition), as well as newer problems (inflation, a talent drain/labor crunch). One of these leaders, OSF’s Nataki Garrett, facing the worst of both racist backlash and severe structural challenges, announced last week that she is stepping down.

The two other leaders from this group who recently tendered their resignations, Hana Sharif and Stephanie Ybarra, didn’t have nearly as rough a time as Garrett did, and both are leaving for job offers they feel they can’t refuse. In Sharif’s case, it is to fulfill a long-held dream to become artistic director of Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage. Ybarra, meanwhile, is heading to a job as program officer in arts and culture at the Mellon Foundation, the nation’s largest supporter of the arts and humanities. Though a Baltimore Sun article in March detailed some of the pushback Ybarra faced from her board of directors over her allegedly “preachy” plays, it also reported that the board offered to renew her contract for another three and half years last fall. She left BCS amicably on April 1, and spoke to me a few weeks later about the storms she weathered, the changes she helped make at her theatre, and her hopes for the field.

ROB WEINERT-KENDT: You were part of a class of new leaders, mostly people of color, who took the reins of historically predominantly white theatres in the late 2010s. You’ve each faced unique challenges, as well as some common issues. What are you thinking as you look back on that period of promise and what’s followed in the years since?

STEPHANIE YBARRA: There are folks who refer to COVID as the great accelerant—you know, accelerating all of the trends, good, bad, and otherwise. And at least part of my experience was that running a theatre during COVID was an accelerant in terms of the learning and muscle-building that was needed. We’ve lived four lifetimes in just that short amount of time. But you and I know, there are very real, very gnarly systemic issues in our field; they are cultural and they’re financial.

You and many of your colleagues came into these jobs with a critique around those issues. Did COVID make it harder or easier to take a swing at those issues and make real change?

Even in the darkest moments of looking around at the world and just being totally bewildered by what’s going on, I think that artists and art find a way. Me and my team at BCS were no exception. We were all looking for opportunities within the crisis, and I think some beautiful, truly gorgeous learning and experimentation happened. My then director of artistic producing, Chiara Klein, who is now at the Public, she and I started referring to it as COVID Ex Machina. There was this sense that all of the trends, including declining ticket sales, were already in place, and though people intellectually understood that, I think that they were still sort of like, “No, but that’s not happening here, everything’s fine.” And COVID Ex Machina sort of came through and was like, “Guess what: You don’t get to decide your rate of change anymore.” I feel like it was the worst of times, yes, but truly there were moments where I was like: This is exactly what we needed to relieve ourselves of the burden of what was, and to force us to imagine what could be.

The Baltimore Sun piece aired some of the conflicts you had with the board over the years; you’ve been clear that had nothing to do with your leaving. And obviously, since the board offered to renew your contract last fall, you must have had some allies on the board as well as critics. Leadership turnover and transition almost always creates some of these dynamics. Can you talk about your experience with this aspect of your job?

I want to just pick up and underscore the thing you said, which is that with leadership transition comes board transition, staff transition, community partnership transition—all of that. The problem is that sort of natural turnover was problematized to the nth degree. It was as if nobody had ever rolled off the board because they didn’t agree with the vision, or subscribers had never before said, “We don’t like the season.” Some of the natural evolution that comes with leadership transition just seems to be categorically forgotten. But I will say, there’s a lot of nuance I’m so grateful to have in my particular story. It is true that the current board and the current staff at Baltimore Center Stage worked hard to get to where we were, but the previous experiences cost me quite a lot. So the journey to get to a place where we had alignment and values alignment and strategy alignment—that was hard won, and that came at quite a high price for lots of people, not just me.

It can sometimes be hard to untangle the degree to which the resistance to your leadership and that of other leaders of color has a racial or gender element, and the degree to which it’s part of the natural resistance from the old guard that all new leaders experience.

The criticism that I heard was undeniably racialized, but it wasn’t always about me and my identity; it was about my curatorial choices. Because every time I put Black and brown people onstage, I had “an agenda”—as if that’s not what I was hired to do, have an actual vision and an agenda. But people conflate the presence of folks who have politicized identities with politics.

When the We See You, White American Theater document came out in the summer of 2020, how did you read that, as a woman of color running a predominantly or historically white theatre?

That felt like a really welcome moment, like I had wind at my back. Because it was no longer just me saying, “Hey, there are some things over here that we should be looking at.” It was an entire movement of people saying that so. It was hard, but ultimately it felt supportive to me.

Stephanie Ybarra being interviewed by Rhea Feikin, for local Maryland public access television show “MPT Artworks.”

I’ve focused a lot on the challenges you faced. Can you tell me about some of the high points of your time at BCS?

My favorite moments would be invisible to the public. They’re certainly not whole productions, but actually specific nights in the theatre, where I was like, “I can’t believe this is my job,” you know? Those happened every every year for me, happily. Like, it’s hard making live theatre, but we chase that high. When lightning strikes on any given night in a dark theatre in any given city, that’s the good stuff.

But the highlights for me are more around what was happening behind the scenes. They involve real moments of joy, laughter, and creativity with my programming team. Play At Home was a bright spot—that was just everybody one-upping each other with “what if,” “what if,” “what if,” and that kind of collaborative space happening inside of the programming and curatorial offices was repeatedly a joyful highlight for me.

Programmatically, the thing I feel most proud of is creating the conditions for the civic life of Baltimore Center Stage to take root, and to get some folks who are not me to believe that theatre can be a public good, a public service to a community, beyond the beautiful shows that happen onstage. I would put Annalisa Diaz as the sort of poster child of the programming team that really carries this ball forward. The future is bright.

One thing the Sun reported was that you stabilized the theatre financially, no small feat in these times.

I mean, the financial position of any theatre right now—nobody’s looking around and saying, “We’re the healthiest we’ve ever been.” But I think that one of my strengths as a producer is to always make the art and the commerce work together in a virtuous way, and not an extractive way. We did a lot of creative producing, programming, contracting. And so—this is gonna sound like a bad thing, but I swear it’s not—the overall expenditures on the programming stayed relatively flat, even decreased a little, but we were able to reallocate that pie and cut the pie differently. So that even as we were rolling through COVID and facing all of the things that people are facing, we were steadily, incrementally increasing fees and salaries.

Yeah, I think that’s one aspect of the We See You document that was maybe overlooked, or overshadowed in a lot of the response to it. In addition to addressing racial inequity, it was a lot about pay inequity, exploitive working conditions, etc.

We were doing that before We See You. But I want bring it back to your question about improving the financial position of Baltimore Center Stage. It’s about investment in people. When you invest in people and relationships, you start to really optimize for the values that you want to be aligned with. That included the no 10 out of 12 and the five-day work week—all of that felt really good. But at Baltimore Center Stage, we were focused on two things for artists specifically. One was pay parity across our spaces; my predecessor had already made the switch, and we were paying actors the same across both of our theatres, even though they were sort of ranked differently contractually. And over my tenure, we were very steadily increasing director, choreographer, and designer fees to bring them all up to parity as well. We were within spitting distance of that when I left. The other thing is that we started paying playwrights a salary to be in rehearsal. And that’s on top of their royalties.

So you’re going above and beyond what the union agreements require?

Yes. We also started, in the current season, to not differentiate a set weekly salary between pros and non-pros, so our Equity and non-Equity actors get paid the same. I’ll never forget: We start every production process with a values meeting where it’s not about design, it’s not about creative ideas; it’s only about how we are going to work together. And part of that meeting is budget transparency, with me and the production manager and the producer rolling in and being like, “Listen, here’s what just happened to the production budgets. They’re smaller, but here’s why we’ve reallocated some of the production budget stuff; we’re paying people more, and this is what our goals are.” I had a set designer, who I will not name, tell me, “This is the first time I’ve been so compelled to bring a show in on or under budget. Because you just told me why my set budget is this, and I’m going to make sure we can meet that number because I want to be part of that reallocation of the pie.”

Is this all part of the theatre’s DNA—i.e., are you confident these changes will outlast you?

Yeah, it’s really hard to walk back salaries. I feel like the next artistic director is going to come and build on what I did. I built on what Kwame [Kwei Armeh] did, and he built on what Irene [Lewis] did. So that continuum is in place. What I feel very lucky about is that when I was leaving, the board and staff identified the non-negotiables—the things where they said, “We’re gonna hang onto this, come hell or high water. There’s room for it to manifest differently in the future, but here’s the core of what we want.” And that felt really good.

Can you tell me a little bit about what you’ll be doing at Mellon?

The invitation and the opportunity of this job, which I did not see coming, did not plan for but couldn’t ignore, is to take some of what I’ve learned, not just at Baltimore Center Stage but over the course of my decades-long career, and to think about how those lessons might support the the national ecosystem. That comes really naturally to me. Running BCS was an exercise in being incredibly focused on the hyper-local opportunities and needs, while also keeping an eye on the national ecology and making sure that Baltimore Center Stage was not operating in some weird silo. Now I feel like my whole job is to traverse the national landscape, then to drop down to the ground with my colleagues across artistic disciplines and be in partnership with them, and be able to reflect way the whole ecology is moving.

Are you optimistic about the field?

Yeah. I think that there’s too much productive dissatisfaction. The headwinds of change are formidable, and I think they’re gonna win.

Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is editor-in-chief of American Theatre.

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